The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: Greenberg
Have you guys been watching this season of Curb Your Enthusiasm? It’s not bad. The scenes in which Larry is just sitting around goofing it up with Jeff and/or Richard Lewis and whatever other goons are around from his group of Exhausted Jews have been pretty funny and have this genuine sense of jovial comraderie. Larry is often smiling in those scenes and as is likely to be laughing at someone else’s joke as he is to be whining or complaining or whatever it is that he usually does. All in all it is much better than last season, which was unbearable. That show has always been very YELLY, but last season had really jumped the shark and then turned around and blamed the shark for being there in the first place, in terms of yelling. So much yelling, which is to be expected, but over nothing. “LARRY HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE MIDDLE OF A DINNER PARTY?!” “What? I had to go to the bathroom!” “OH FUCK YOU, LARRY!” That is my snapshot summary of the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That show has always been pretty hate-it-or-love-it because it’s so dependent on your reaction to Larry David both as a character and as a performer. It’s the kind of show that’s not really worth arguing about because even people who love that show UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY anyone who feels differently. “I hate that show because he’s obnoxious and awful and egotistical and selfish and everyone is always yelling all the time.” Well, right. CORRECT. I bring this all up because there was something about Ben Stiller’s character that reminded me of a younger Larry David. Except, imagine his character if he never told any jokes, he never apologized for any of his mistakes not even with one of those half-hearted Larry David non-apologies, he didn’t at least create Seinfeld so you don’t have to give him any credit for that, and when you thought about it it turned out he was an unambivalently terrible human being. Greenberg!
Greenberg is about a middle-aged man named Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who comes to LA to housesit for his brother while his brother and his family are vacationing in Thailand. He used to be a musician in a band and in the 1990s he almost got a bigtime record deal with a major label, but he blew the deal out of some misguided (we are told) adherence to “artistic integrity,” so now all of his old friends/bandmates hate him for blowing their big shot. Mostly, Greenberg spends all his time moping around his brother’s family’s beautiful mansion (we never learn what his brother does for a living, but whatever it is, he is apparently VERY GOOD at it), writing angry letters to airline companies and Mayor Bloomberg, and taking care of their dog, Mahler. P.S. Their dog’s name is Mahler, so you kind of see what kind of world we are living in here. His brother leaves him the number for Florence, the family’s personal assistant (right) who can help him out with things around the house and also the dog. She can also help him out with having sex with her and getting into a torturous, agonizing relationship. So that happens. That’s most of the movie, really. Mahler gets sick. Some teenagers who have a completely unexplained relationship to Greenberg and his family through a drug-fueled party at the mansion. Greenberg and his best friend have a fight. Florence gets an abortion. Greenberg leaves her a voicemail. The end.
You guys, I’m worried about Noah Baumbach! Like, kind of for real! I know that you cannot know THAT much about someone’s life just by their work, but if Noah Baumbach’s work is even slightly representational of the world he lives in, then he lives in a terrible world where everyone is a real fucking asshole! Greenberg is easily the most awful, least sympathetic, icky-feeling-making character I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time. I guess he’s not an actual MURDERER, which is pretty bad, and you see those in movies a lot, but murderers are a little more sympathetic because at least murderers have PASSION or are at least DOING SOMETHING.
Greenberg’s whole thing throughout the movie is how he’s “trying not to do anything” these days. What does that even mean? And how are the rest of us supposed to react to it? Must be nice, I guess. Hey, if anyone ever gets the chance to kind of not do anything for awhile, I would recommend that they seize that chance! It’s very rare that any of us get time to breathe and think and reflect and consider. Although, that’s not really what Greenberg’s doing. He’s mostly just complaining and yelling and deflecting and insulting. Cool. Cool dude. Very fun to spend two hours with him!
The thing about that is: OK, fair enough. A counter-argument would be that movies do not always need to be about people that are fun to spend time with, and I totally agree. There are certainly lots of neurotic, self-indulgent people with very little perspective on their lives out there who abuse the patience and emotional generosity of other people. They are like little blackholes of want and need and it can be very hard at times to escape from their crushing gravitational pull of narcissism and sadness. Is this a type of person about whom I would like to watch a movie? Probably not. But that’s OK. There’s lots of people I don’t want to see a movie about. Most Jennifer Garner movies come to mind, just as an example. And if the movie isn’t going to be about someone who is fun to spend time with, which we have just acknowledged is totally fair and reasonable, then it should be about something else.
So what is this movie about then? Are we supposed to hate Greenberg? I don’t think we are. I do, but I don’t think that’s what the movie is asking from me. Do we pity him? Eh. Pity what? He’s selfish and rude and toxic. The movie alludes to him having gone into a mental hospital after a suicide attempt, which is certainly a tiny corner of the human experience that is worth exploring, but at the end of the exploration are we really supposed to wish that he had succeeded?
The real problem isn’t so much that Greenberg’s character is miserable and not fun to watch. It is that all of the other characters seem to operate in unrealistic, unmotivated ways that encourage Greenberg’s behavior so that we can carry on with this character study of this horrible character. Stop it, you guys! Greta Gerwig is actually really great as a well-meaning, open-hearted 25-year-old girl living in Los Angeles and at a bit of a loss with what to do with her life. Her performance has a real genuine openness to it! That is a thing you say about acting, right? But while she is good AS her character, her character doesn’t actually make any sense. Like, I can totally believe that a 25-year-old might stumble into a relationship with a 40-year-old. That happens enough. And I can even believe that a 25-year-old might stumble into a BAD relationship with a 40-year-old. But in every other way, Greta Gerwig seems thoughtful and confident and like a person who would not be endlessly manipulated by a monster, nor would she constantly be allowing him to crawl back into her bad after he needlessly screamed at and insulted her in her own home. At one point, at his birthday dinner, when Rhys Ifans asks the waitstaff to bring over a piece of cake with a candle and sing the birthday song to him, Ben Stiller has a public and embarrassing freak out in the restaurant and screams “SIT ON MY DICK YOU ASSHOLE!” to his best friend, and not only does Greta Gerwig drive him home after this, but she laughs about it. Huh? What is even remotely funny about it? It’s awful. And a real RED FLAG. (Later she will tell him that she is impressed by him. UH, WHAT? Please believe me if you have not seen this movie already that there is nothing even the tiniest bit impressive about him.) Although perhaps the most incredible is when Greenberg offers to drive her to get an abortion (the baby is not his) even though she already gotten one of her good, non-asshole friends to drive her to the clinic, and Greenberg doesn’t have a car or a driver’s license anyway, but she cancels the ride with her friend and goes in the back of Rhys Ifans car where they blast classic rock? No. No she doesn’t. She goes with her friend. What? (P.S. after the abortion, Greenberg puts a cheeseburger on her hospital bed and then abandons her there to go do cocaine with James Franco’s brother.)
Similarly, his friend, played by Rhys Ifans, allows him to read a long, rambling, CRAZY PERSON letter to Mayor Bloomberg about how they should put more cops out on New York City street corners to help reduce the number of car honks in its entirety without ever once telling him to shut the fuck up. Unlikely! (Also unlikely: Rhys Ifans character is a recovering alcoholic drug addict, and Greenberg offers him a drink or some drugs every single time that he sees him and not once does this seem like an issue to either of them.)
Not that the people who don’t put up with Greenberg’s bullshit are any better. Every time his brother calls from Vietnam it is just to berate Ben Stiller with an impatient screaming tirade about what a horrible, untrustworthy fuck up he is. It is almost as if no one is actually paying attention to anyone else in this movie, and they are all reading their lines from completely different scripts. Now, one might make the argument that life is messy and complicated and sometimes people behave in surprising or inexplicable ways and I would agree. They do. All the time. But this is not life, this is a make believe movie. None of it is real anyway, so you have to do the best you can without losing the audience. (Much less without making them super miserable and want those two hours back.)
This is clearly not the Worst Movie of All Time. Like I said, Greta Gerwig is very good at acting in it. But it’s certainly a painful combination of Yelling, Despicable Selfishness, and Pretension. You start to pity the people in Greenberg’s life, but you don’t pity them nearly as much as you pity yourself. At least they are make believe and can stop existing after the movie ends. You have to live with the fact that you watched it for the rest of your days. Still, it is always nice to get whatever you can out of an experience, a fact that Greenberg could stand to learn (since he learns absolutely nothing in this movie) and so here, for the ladies, are some images of Dave Franco making James Franco faces:
Don’t thank me, thank Noah Baumbach. It’s always nice to be recognized, and he could probably use some cheering up!